June 22, 2017

The Worst Squat Ever: Dec. 22, 2011 (Life Time Fitness approx. 12:15 p.m.)

Mark Schmukal, owner and operator of Total Health & Exercise, LLC graciously and purposely demonstrates "poor" squatting technique.

Really, I see it ALL the time. This day was really no different, but the squatting technique that I witnessed on December 22nd at the Parker, Colorado Life Time Fitness at approximately 12:15 p.m. was so bad that it inspired me to write about it (the reason I am being so specific with the details is that, perhaps, if only in jest, I maintain a fanciful hope that the individuals who were performing this “squat” session will someday read this post and consult me for guidance … I realize that it is a long shot).  Anyway, I resolved right then and there to make the first post of the new year all about the squat with hopes that it would save someone from suffering the consequences of performing squats incorrectly (the least of which is drawing my criticism).  Bottom line: if you can’t do a squat with near perfect form, then DO NOT SQUAT. Do something else, say … use the leg press machine, but don’t squat. I don’t say this to be mean but rather to hopefully protect you from a compromised spine and destroyed knees (at a minimum). This comes from someone who 1) places the barbell squat (along with the deadlift) among his “dessert island” lifts, meaning that I consider the squat an essential move, one that I might even perform if I found myself stranded on a desert island, and 2) has performed countless squats incorrectly before mastering the fundamentals (and only by the fortune of youth and God’s grace has not yet paid too high a price) and is continually striving to improve his technique.  Many in the strength/resistance community label the squat “the king of all exercises” and consider it to be the single most effective resistance training movement if performed with correct form (see Colker’s assessment, below).

In theory, the barbell squat is strikingly simple; however, in practice it becomes fairly complex due our individual variations in size, posture, muscle development, coordination, and flexibility.  The basics of performing a correct barbell squat are set out below in six steps:

  1. Approach a squat or power rack with the barbell set at approximately shoulder height (use the seam of the armpit as a good guide or set the bar at mid-sternum level) and, prior to gripping the bar, check to see that the barbell is centered in the rack (left to right); the squat is one of those exercise where how you begin in large part determines how you will finish … so start well!;
  2. Step under the bar keeping your feet at approximately shoulder width (toes may point out to 30°; however, I recommend a “toes forward” setup if you have sufficient flexibility to reach the appropriate end position), and “trap” the bar on your trapezius muscles (the bar should sit 1-2 inches below the back of the neck with the hands spaced significantly wider than shoulder width to accommodate the lower bar position—drawing the elbows toward the floor helps to “trap” the bar lower on the back, this is known as the “low bar” position and provides a platform for the safest squat execution), use a closed, palm-forward “active” grip (meaning that you should engage your forearm muscles) with your thumbs wrapped securely around the bar or, alternatively, resting on top of the bar (the thumb frequently hangs out on top of the bar as the weight becomes substantial)—it is essential that the wrists be in line with the forearms.  Note: if working on the power or Olympic moves, a “high bar” position is preferred; here the bar is positioned above the posterior deltoids at the base of the neck with a grip that is only slightly beyond the width of the shoulders.;
  3. Before moving the bar out of the rack and beginning the lowering movement, draw your shoulder blades down and back, engage your gluteal muscles (i.e. your butt), and draw you abdominal muscles “in” toward your lower back—the idea is to keep your back straight while minimizing forward lean as you descent through the eccentric (the lowering phase) of the movement.  When moving the bar out of the rack, take only a moderate step back (it is not necessary to travel several steps with the bar);
  4. Squat, keeping your weight evenly distributed between heels and mid-foot, unit your thighs are parallel to floor and the hips drop below the top of the patella (the top of the knee—this is key, descending to a level other than parallel is not a squat … period … don’t fool yourself, the complete range of motion is necessary to reap the effects of this fundamental exercise);
  5. Pause at the bottom (between the eccentric, down phase, and the concentric, up phase … note that you can choose to utilize the the stretch-shortening cycle and immediately return from the bottom instead of pausing) and return to the starting position by initiating hip extension (“hip drive”) from the bottom (note that the goal is preserve a consistent angle between the hips and the shoulders … the hips drive upward  and not forward).  It is very important to finish the movement by making sure to extend until the hip return to the starting position)—maintain a neutral head position, with the eyes gazing forward throughout the movement (ideally, keep your head in a neutral position with the eyes focused on a point approximately 5-6 feet in front of you);
  6. The body is kept “tight” throughout the movement, also note that the downward movement focuses on hip and knee flexion, while the upward movement focuses on hip and knee extension—it is important to finish the squat by fully extending the both the knees and hips.

The squat is a fundament, core exercise (note that the term “core exercise” is frequently confused … in this context it means a structural exercise that directly loads the spine and NOT a movement that is some equivalent to a crunch or other abdominal moves; however, the squat places significant emphasis on the trunk musculature).

Although much has been written about the barbell squat (due to the quality of the movement, the barbell squat, or some variation of it, is included in nearly every resistance training or fitness guide).  Perhaps one of the most complete treatments of the squat is provided by Rippetoe M, Kilgore L.  Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.  2nd ed.  Wichita Falls: Aasgaard; 2007.  Over the course of nearly fifty, single-spaced pages, Rippetoe covers ever consideration of the squat and I have set out some of his major introductory points below:

Rippetoe begins with a quote that captures what I have often felt, “[t]he squat has been the most important yet most poorly understood exercise in the training arsenal for a very long time.  The full range of motion exercise known as the squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power, and size.”—I cannot agree more!  The power of the squat stem from the recruitment of large groups of muscles, forced to move “in exactly the way the skeletal biomechanics are designed for them to be used, over their anatomically full range of motion.”  In addition, the comprehensive nature of the squat movement, especially when correctly performed, “produces hormonal responses that affect the entire body … [n]ot only is the core strengthened, it is strengthened in the context of a total physical and mental experience.”  It is from this endocrine response that the bodybuilding adage of “squat to grow” stems.  Invariably a question concerning safety rears its head when speaking about the squat and Rippetoe addresses it straight away: “The full squat is the preferred lower body exercise for safety as well as athletic strength.  The squat, when performed correctly, is not only the safest leg exercise for the knees, it produces a more stable knee that any other leg exercise.  The important part of the last statement is the ‘when performed correctly’ qualifier.  Correctly is deep, with hips dropping below level with the top of the patella.”  On this point we also agree (see above)!  Rippetoe supports my admonition that “[a]ny squat that is not deep is a partial squat, and partial squats stress the knee and the quadriceps without stressing the glutes, the adductors, and the hamstrings.”  If you are limited by inflexibility through the squatting movement, you would be better to develop the requisite flexibility by performing prerequisite movements, than performing “full” squats incorrectly.  Begin with an understanding of the proper squatting movement and then develop the necessary skills and movement patterns to allow you to capitalize on the benefits of this essential move.  Avoid the temptation to perform partial squats, as the abbreviated movement is unbalanced and exerts significant shearing force (an anterior shear) on the knee.  Furthermore, the hamstring muscles are intimately involved with the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, which also prevents the tiba from sliding forward)—the hamstrings are only engaged in the full squat!  As a result, the full squat is necessary to increase hamstring strength and thereby protect the ACL.  Note, as Rippetoe further points out, “athletes who are missing an ACL can safety squat heave weights, because the ACL is under no stress in a correctly performed full squat”—in the properly executed full squat the “anterior force provided by the quadriceps is balanced by the posterior force provided by the hamstrings.”  Before directing you to read the remaining 50+ pages of Rippetoe’s work on your own, I want to include a final thought about the squat that he makes so powerfully.  The goal of the squat is to stimulate a training response and increase your strength and power as an athlete (or encourage hypertrophy, depending on your training goal).  To that end, the problem with the “partial” squat is that it encourages heavy loads which, unfortunately, causes significant and frequently excessive spinal loading that can lead to premature and unnecessary injuries.  Rippetoe hit another home run with his observation about running up big numbers via partial squats: “Your interest is in getting strong (at least it should be), not in playing meaningless games with numbers … [i]f it’s too heavy to squat below parallel, it’s too heavy to have on your back.”

Final Key: For all forms of the barbell squat, the barbell ends up centered over the mid-foot in the bottom position!

Many authors, including Rippetoe (above), also identify kinesthetic awareness as a necessary component of proper squatting technique.  Kinesthetic awareness refers to the ability to sense muscular movement and position; specifically, the movement of a body part in relation to the ground or the body as a whole.  In the weight room, the sensory inputs received from visual cues, verbal cues/hearing, muscles, ligaments, tendons, are skins are collectively processed as a display of this sensory skill.  Frequently, as is is the case with the squat, we can develop specific muscle memory that will allow us to  perform movements properly time and time again.  This is why it important to develop good squatting techniques from the onset or, if our form is less than ideal, begin anew to develop the proper technique!

If you want to perform a technically correct squat, then follow the six steps outlined above.  If you want more (much more) read “Starting Strength, 2nd. edition.”  And, if you are interested in perhaps even learning a new progression to the back squat, I will encourage you to get your hands on a copy of the April, 2011 edition of the NSCA‘s Strength and Conditioning Journal (I have provided a link here, where you can read the abstract or purchase a copy of the article).  “A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises” by Chiu and Burkhardt outlines a sound and somewhat novel progression that works to promote proper biomechanics for the squat (note: the back squat is the move we generally associate with a “squat”).  Chiu and Burkhardt present a 4-stage progression that moves an athlete through the following progression: 1)  a plate squat, 2) overhead squat, 3) front squat, and 4) back squat.  One of the benefits of this progression is that it allows for early identification of biomechanics limiters (e.g. flexibility or muscle strength) that frequently serve as barriers to performing proper squats.  In particular, the plate squat allows the athlete to encounter resistance and promotes rapid motor learning (as the authors correctly note, motor learning adaptations often are responsible for the rapid gains that are achieve over the course of the early sessions)—I also focus my attention on the frequently present anterior pelvic tilt acts as a confounder here.  Specifically, the plate squat, while loading the spinal column, identifies (depending on whether the athlete exhibits hyper- or hpyolordosis) weakness of the erector spinae or weakness of the anterior trunk musculature (primarily the external obliques and recuts abdomens).  Once proper form is achieved with the plate squat, achieved with the torso “upright in the deep squat position, the legs rotated anteriorly with the knee in from of the toes, and the weight distributed across the forefoot and rear foot,” the largely “self-correcting” overhead squat is introduced—the overhead squat is self-correcting due to the fact that “it is difficult to perform incorrectly as long as the feet remain flat with the knees and barbell properly positioned.”  Like the authors, I agree that overhead squatting is an essential movement in working toward proper squat form, as it “develops and maintains the important qualities of ankle, hip, and spine and shoulder complex flexibility, while strengthening the lower extremity and stabilizing musculature of the shoulder complex and spine.”  Next, the front squat, which also requires an upright position of the trunk, provides the athlete an opportunity to attempt additional weight.  For some athletes, the front squat should potentially mark the end of the progression—the authors correctly note that there is a lack of evidence, at least as to developing leg strength, of any benefit of the back squat over the front squat.  Chiu and Burkhardt only suggest moving on to the back squat once the athlete has successfully completed front squats with “substantial resistance.”  Regardless of the bar position selected (e.g. high or low), the techniques developed through the profession of the plate, overhead, and front squat support the proper movement pattern of the back squat.  Once again I find agreement with the authors in instructing athletes/clients to keep the elbows pointed down, instead of outward (behind the body), as this position promotes keeping the torso in an upright position.

Chiu L and Burkhard E.  A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises.  Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2011; 33, No. 2: 46-54.

Don’t let the name scare you away, but a book by Carlon Colker, M.D. entitled “Extreme Muscle Enhancement” (2nd. edition) adds some additional thoughts that can be used to progress proper squat technique and gain effectiveness from a squat regimen.  Note that Colker’s book is a no-nonsense guide to bodybuilding (think serious hypertrophy = muscle growth).  As with all resources, I tend to “take the best and leave the rest,” but Colker presents many solid training principles and plans in a single concise volume.  In the introduction to quadricep training, Colker labels the squat as the “king” of weight room movements and mirrors my thoughts about the need to perform the movement with attention to correct form: “[b]y far, squats are the single most effective resistance motion there is and ever will be, if done correctly [emphasis added].”   Colker labels his 10 major points concerning the squat as follows (my summary and additional comments follow in parentheses: 1) “Warm-up before you squat.” (recommending non-impact, non-ballsitic aerobic motions, e.g. a stationary bike); 2) “Always do a full-range-of-motion squat.” (reiterating that there is no such thing as a “quarter” or “half” squat); 3) “Descend slowly.” (control this movement, as high-speed movements with only small compromises in technique can lead to big injuries); 4) “Create a “pocket.”” (tightness at the bottom without a dramatic bounce: note that this different than saying that one should not take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle—rather the transition between eccentric, down and concentric, up is “controlled”); 5) “Use a heel lift.” (this is an aid to overcome flexibility issues that jeopardize the lumbar spine when the forward movement, or excessive forward lean is present); 6) “Maintain a natural arch in your lower back.” (correct position of the neutral, lordodic spine); 7) “Never lock out your knees at the top of the rep.” (I am not extremely concerned with avoiding lockout; however, under significant loads this can be problematic—I would add that the “active” knee position is correct, but the athlete must “finish” with the hips, that is, return to the hips to the natural position at the top of the squat movement; 8 ) “Higher reps rule for legs.” (as a general rule, the legs DO respond to higher rep counts)—try adding higher rep ranges (15-25) if nothing more than for variety); 9) “Stretch after squatting.” (this is simply consistent with the latest information that suggests that static stretching decreases strength and power if completed prior to a strength/resistance training workout); 10) “Don’t start a squatting routine before you’re ready.” (THE POINT of my entire blog entry).

Coker’s book is a good resource, pick up a copy to read more: Colker CM.  Extreme Muscle Enhancement.  2nd ed.  Manasquan: Pro Source; 2007.

The bottom line: I love the squat; however, I understand that it is a technically demanding movement that requires a requisite level of flexibility, kinesthetic awareness (or at least a fair amount of proper coaching in order to learn the correct movement patterns), and training discipline.  Embrace the challenge to learn to squat correctly and you will be rewarded with tremendous training gains.  Whether your goal is increased strength, power, or muscle growth, the squat is a gateway for achieving each of these training adaptations (it can be a fundamental move in maintaining and progress general fitness).  If you lack the flexibility or experience to perform a proper squat, use the principles and resources outlined above to get there.  The increases in flexibility that allow for proper squat technique take time to develop; however, a rational, systematic, and consistent training plan will get you there!

 

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